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Mario Vargas Llosa: Nobel prize-winner punched Gabriel Garcia Marquez to make a political point

October 7, 2010 | 11:39 am

Mario_Vargas_Llosa EL Pais

The writer Mario Vargas Llosa, a leading figure of the so-called "Boom" in Latin American literature in the 1960s and '70s and an outsize political figure in his native Peru, has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Swedish Academy, announcing the award early Thursday, said Vargas Llosa took this year's prize for "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." Vargas Llosa, 74, is the first Latin American and Spanish-language writer to win the award since Mexican essayist and poet Octavio Paz, who won the Nobel in 1990. The last South American author to win the award, in 1982, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Here is Vargas Llosa's official website, and the Nobel's official page on this year's award, with live "greetings" to the author from fans around the world.

Born in 1936 in the provincial Peruvian city of Arequipa, Vargas Llosa was sent to a military school before going on to study law and literature in Lima and Madrid. He later worked as a journalist in Paris for Agence France-Presse. His early experiences in a military setting inspired his first novel, "La cuidad y los perros" (1963), which appeared in English as "The Time of the Hero." The book was hailed for its literary innovation but sparked controversy and condemnation by Peru's military.

Vargas Llosa went on to write more than two dozen titles in fiction, nonfiction, drama, and journalism, and he continues to write and publish.

He first heard he had won the award early Thursday morning from a Peruvian radio station that reached the author in New York. Vargas Llosa initially thought the call was a prank, the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio reported (link in Spanish). When he was read the Swedish Academy's reasons for awarding him the Nobel, the author reportedly remarked: "Look, how nice. I hope it's true."

Politics have defined Vargas Llosa's life and literary output. He supported the Cuban Revolution but by the 1970s had become one of the sharpest critics of Fidel Castro. In 1990, in a conversation with Paz live on Mexican television, he coined the now-famous phrase describing Mexico's quasi-authoritarian regime under the Institutional Revolutionary Party as "the perfect dictatorship."

In 1990, at the height of the bloody Shining Path guerrilla insurgency, Vargas Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru as a "reform-minded, center-right candidate," Reuters notes. "He proposed budget-cutting and free-market policies, which appealed to wealthy conservatives but alarmed the poor." The author lost the election to Alberto Fujimori, and disappointed many in Peru when he left the country for Spain.

In recent years, Vargas Llosa has traded barbs with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In an infamous incident in a Mexico City theater in 1976, Vargas Llosa punched his former friend Garcia Marquez in the eye over personal and political disputes. The two have been estranged ever since.

On Thursday, Peruvian President Alan Garcia called the Nobel announcement a "great day for Peru" and dubbed Vargas Llosa a "universal Peruvian" (link in Spanish). El Comercio has an interesting Google Maps feature pinpointing locations throughout the world where Vargas Llosa has lived or been honored. The direct link, in Spanish, is here.

In an 2002 interview with The Guardian, Vargas Llosa gave some insight on his view of the writer's role in society: "I think a writer has some kind of responsibility at least to participate in the civic debate. I think literature is impoverished, if it becomes cut from the main agenda of people, of society, of life."

Vargas Llosa currently lives in New York while he lectures at Princeton University. Here is a summary of five essential novels by Vargas Llosa. His newest book, El Pais reports, is titled "El Sueño del Celta," or "The Celtic's Dream," and described it as an "adventure that begins in the Congo in 1903 and ends in a jail in London in 1916."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Author Mario Vargas Llosa. Credit: El Pais

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